Houston will play two tough series this week

A look at the big week ahead for the Astros

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After stumbling out to a 2-5 start, the Astros rebounded with a strong weekend performance, sweeping the A's in the weekend series to climb back up the AL West standings and get to .500 with a 5-5 record. This week, they'll have a chance to shake up the early, volatile standings even more, but it'll take as good, or better, games to come out ahead.

First, they'll stay at home for a three-game set against the Yankees, who are in a very similar spot. New York started their season 2-4 before sweeping the Orioles in Baltimore over the weekend, improving their record to 5-4 and moving them up to second in the AL East. Not only will the series be big for both teams because it's a potential playoff preview, but two of the three games will have the national spotlight with Monday and Tuesday night's games broadcast on ESPN.

Those two games will be nationally televised for good reason; Monday night we'll see the aces for both teams squaring off, with Justin Verlander on the mound for Houston and Masahiro Tanaka for New York. Then, Tuesday night we'll see Gerrit Cole go up against 24-year-old Jonathan Loaisiga. Verlander will look to improve to 2-0 on the season and rebound from his last start, a four-run four-inning outing in Arlington that luckily ended in a no-decision. Cole meanwhile will also look to improve his early-season numbers' he sits at 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA, getting little offense to back him in his two starts where he's gone six innings each and a combined 19 strikeouts.

Pitching matchups aside, these two offenses had great weekends and could easily give the pitching staffs grief with the Astros scoring 18 runs over their three-game set with Oakland and the Yankees exploding for 29 runs against Baltimore in their three games, 15 of those coming in their huge blowout on Sunday. One upside for the Astros is that the Yankees will be without Giancarlo Stanton who sits on the 10-day injured list with a bicep strain. That hasn't slowed them down at all, though, with Aaron Judge's power leading a potent lineup with great hitters like newly-signed DJ LeMahieu and young Gleyber Torres. As far as Houston's lineup, as mentioned they had a strong weekend with their top guys like George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa all coming through with some consistency and big hits.

It could be even more intriguing if the Astros could get some help from the Royals earlier in the week, but regardless, after Houston wraps up the series at home with the Yankees they'll travel to Seattle to take on the first-place Mariners who have gotten out to a red-hot start. After sweeping the two-game Japan opening series with the A's, the Mariners have since taken three out of four with the defending champion Red Sox and two out of three against the White Sox. At 9-2 with a couple of extra games under their belt compared to other teams, the Mariners sit atop the league, 3.5 games ahead of Houston.

Seattle has been winning games by brute force, working their way up to a +29 run differential on the early season after taking advantage of opposing pitches in multiple games. This will set up an intriguing start to the series on Friday night when we see Wade Miley on the mound, a pitcher who typically lives on getting outs in the field on weak contact. Saturday night we'll see Brad Peacock go up against Felix Hernandez, then Sunday it'll be Justin Verlander versus Marco Gonzalez to wrap up the series.

So, with a potential ALCS-level matchup to start the week, then trying to overthrow the current AL West division leader on the road over the weekend, the Astros have a big week ahead of them. Hopefully, they can use the momentum they created in the sweep against the A's this weekend because they'll need strong offense and strong pitching to come out of the week with a winning record. Hopefully, if they can manage that winning record, they may just end the week on top of the division standings.

The Third Starter

Colin McHugh is all that so far

Collin McHugh/Facebook

I know we're just four starts in and you can't make any assumptions in a baseball season until September but maybe just maybe the Astros have found their third starter and he's been right under our nose the whole time.

This is not something the organization had to realize. They've been on the Colin McHugh train since the offseason began. We fans have been slower on the uptake.

The first rumblings came early in the offseason when the team allegedly went after Nathan Eovaldi then James Paxton. They obviously had a number for each in mind that they wouldn't exceed and they lost out to the Red Sox and Yankees on both.

I for one wanted to see them go after Corey Kluber. I dreamed of a rotation of Verlander, Kluber, Cole and then fill in the gaps. Those three at the top of any rotation is the stuff parades are made of. It wasn't realistic to think the Indians wold trade him to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year but I could dream anyway.

Can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the Astros would re-sign Dallas Keuchel. My answer every time has been a fervent no. It seems almost inconceivable that a guy who won the Cy Young four years ago and was a number two starter on a World Series team just two years ago is still out of work but he's just not the same dominant guy he was. Not even close. Soft tossing lefties are not in high demand especially ones who are 31 and looking for big money long term deals. His last couple of years have not warranted it. He started 2017 with a 9-0 record. He had shoulder issues and finished the second half with a 5-5 record but more than that, every important stat was worse post all-star break. Maybe that was due to the injury but last year when he was thought to healthy he wasn't much better. He gave up more hits and faced more batters than anyone in the league. His WAR was his second worst since 2013. His K/W was down. His WHIP was up and so on and so on. He's not a top of the rotation guy anymore but wants to be paid like it. The marketplace is telling him it's not going to happen, not unless a good team gets desperate anyway.

In spring training Forest Whitley was all the rave. He looked great and he was ready to come in and assume that role of third starter. One problem: tough to do that from Round Rock and oh by the way he hasn't been all that in his two starts. His second outing on Monday lasted 1 1/3 and he has a 9.95 ERA. No big deal but not something any player wants to look up at on the scoreboard no matter how early in the season. The common thought is that the club will bring him up in June to get that extra year of service. If so it'll be plenty of time for Whitley to get acclimated to the bigs and pitch in some pressure games before the postseason. He's got top of the rotation stuff and could eventually be the ace here but when he does get here he's going to have prove that he's good enough to be the third starter on this staff because Colin McHugh won't relinquish that without a fight.

For whatever reason I just don't believe we've bought into McHugh as a big time starter. Maybe it's because of how he looks. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with his looks but it's not what an overpowering athlete is in 2019. Verlander and Cole look the part, McHugh not so much. But looks can be deceiving. Since he's joined the Astros he's had a winning record every year. He's 57-31. He's had a 19 win season. Some 3rd starters never do that. After going 48-28 over 4 seasons as a starter he was asked to come out of the bullpen and responded with what could have and maybe should have been an all-star season.

One big question coming into this season was whether or not McHugh could pitch deep into games after a year in the pen. He went 3 innings twice all of last season. If he couldn't it would certainly tax a bullpen that looks weaker without him and Brad Peacock. So far though he's gone six innings in 3 of his 4 starts. That could get better but A.J. may have some of the same doubt about him that we do. If your name is Verlander or Cole, A.J. will leave you in until you think you're done. If your name isn't Verlander or Cole he takes you out when he thinks you're done.

It's a long season and there are a bunch of starts left but McHugh has allayed some of the fears many of us had this offseason. He certainly looks the part of a 3rd starter on a championship team so far.


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